We were delighted to be invited by the Dead [Women] Poets Society to review their Not in Newcastle online event on Sunday 11 April 2021. Two of our young writers, Ellen Waters and India Hunter, took up the opportunity – you can read their reviews below.
It is impossible to ignore the loss of intimacy that comes with a Zoom poetry event, trading in the squeaking of chairs, the collective gasps and cackles of audience members and the smell of strong coffee and beer, for a laptop screen and several dozen disembodied faces reacting out of time. In fact, the Dead [Women] Poets Society themselves had hoped to wait it out and avoid transitioning to this peculiar format all together, but decided instead to go online for the interim period – and I’m glad they did! The increased accessibility of online events is undeniable, both in the availability of live captioning/transcripts, and in the ability of anyone with internet access to attend. However, they had also made an effort to still tie the event to its intended venue in Newcastle in some ways, by ensuring they reached out particularly to people from the North East to attend, and giving them a special welcome.
The event began with Hannah Hodgson and her incredible responses to the work of Julia Darling, contemplating the beauty inherent in celebrating life alongside the “existential threat” of death. Hannah acknowledged that there are very few poets writing about life-limiting illness – about conditions which “stretch out alongside them” – and this resurrection therefore felt even more crucial. Beginning with ‘Chemotherapy’ was very fitting, as it was the first poem of Darling’s that she herself read, and her own responses to the work were poignant, personal and achingly relevant. Hannah’s ‘The Whole Street is Standing By’ was particularly striking.
Then came Momtaza Mehri’s lovely reflections on May Ayim, and how her deep study of community and isolation, and the “borderless expanse of histories” present in her work, has impacted her own writing. As an Afro-German poet and activist living in Berlin in the 80s and 90s, Ayim wrote a great deal about diasporic belonging and internationalism, and experienced the city as one that she simultaneously loved and feared. Momtaza’s stunning creative responses brought her into raw and powerful conversation with Ayim’s work, considering the place of the poet in their writing: “like me, the lake did not choose to be described”.
This was interspersed with some fabulous and varied open mic performances, responding to a number of dead women and non-binary poets including Helen Dunmore, Lucille Clifton and Letitia Pilkington.
In some respects, the Zoom format – and the technical issues which affected much of the second half – became an interesting and unique way to produce a séance. The struggle to reach these dead women poets across a distance of time and space, desperate to give them a voice and experience their words in real time, became recreated in miniature by the loss and reconnection of the living poets, hearing distorted voices and hoping to keep the connection for long enough to experience what they had to say. The technical issues were also very gracefully handled, and the host’s lively interim patter coupled with shifting easily between open mic and Momtaza Mehri’s beautiful reflections made it a great atmosphere, even when things didn’t go to plan. The first online séance was a lovely experience, and I can’t wait to attend more.
And, when possible, to escape our Zoom squares and be back in a hushed and candlelit room, feeling the power of poets both living and dead simmer between us.
The magic of the Dead [Women] Poets Society’s online séance lies in its ability to intertwine the past, present and future. The bond between the work of the writers who have passed and the writers featured in the event was almost tangible. You were able to feel their passion for the work of their poetical ancestors. You saw the connections between the lost poet’s lives and theirs. It was a wonderful reminder that we are never truly alone in our experiences. The literature and lives of the past are not so different from our own – we are able to take comfort in the fact that if others have survived our trauma then we can too. This is the feeling that I believe the Dead [Women] Poets Society captured so perfectly, that of solidarity with our foremothers.
This feeling was exemplified wonderfully by the work of poet Hannah Hodgson. Her connection to the work of Julia Darling, an English poet, novelist and dramatist who fought against breast cancer for a period of her life, painted a very vivid picture about the deep and personal sense of solidarity that you can feel towards an artist you have never even met. Her use of creative metaphor mirrors Darling’s so perfectly yet reflects Hodgson’s own ideas and thoughts in a way that makes the technique seem entirely her own. The idea presented by both Hodgson and Darling of using poetry to create more empathy and understanding between patients and doctors was complete genius. As someone with experience of chronic illness, I felt my own views echoed by their manifesto of mixing art and medicine. The feeling of solidarity was echoed within this as well. I truly look forward to reading more of both Hodgson’s and Darling’s work.
That is another wonderful aspect of the Dead [Women] Poets Society’s events – they introduce you to wonderful new writers that may have never crossed your path otherwise. For example, through the work of the wonderful Momtaza Mehri, who did an amazing job of coping with various technical difficulties, the audience was introduced to the work of the Afro-German poet May Ayim. Having studied German culture and language for the past seven years, I was extremely excited to learn about Ayim’s work – Mehri did not disappoint. Her exploration of multicultural identity and the question of who gets to set the standard for cultural identity was profoundly thought-provoking. Mehri speaks with such power, she was a presence to behold. This was echoed by the strength and beauty of her language. It was an inspirational and emboldening experience.
The open mic section of the event expanded the magic and wonder of the séance further. The wonderful Ruth Yates, Angela Cleveland, Jenny Pagdin, Laura Warner, Rue Collinge, Michelle Marie Jacquot, and Ellora Sutton ended the night with such power. They were asked to read a poem from a dead female poet then follow this with work of their own. This structure echoed that feeling of solidarity with past women – to hear the work of those gone in conjunction with the work of today’s talented poetesses really solidified the message of female empowerment and undeniability. Highlights from the open mic included Yates’ poem The Valley of the Dead Horse, which echoed the style of The Bat by twentieth century writer Ruth Pitter. The line ‘here, just maybe, we could sit and understand everything,’ was a favourite of mine.
The Dead [Women] Poets Society are doing incredible work to reinvigorate the work of strong women from the past, while also promoting the work of present and future poetic wonders. Helen Bowell, Jasmine Simms, and Lily Arnold have created a force of power and beauty that cannot, and will not, fade. I would absolutely recommend attending their future events.
Find out more about Dead [Women] Poets here.